By Ekta R. Garg
Dialogue should be open-ended enough that we can use it to redirect a scene to build on our story. It shouldn’t give up everything right away. There should always be room for more dialogue and more possibilities of where the dialogue can take readers. In other words, dialogue is not just dialogue. It actually does so much more.
The many functions of dialogue
1. Conveying information about the setting
The Wheel of Time is Robert Jordan’s sweeping epic fantasy series with five main characters who discover that they have abilities and powers beyond what they knew. In the first book, The Eye of the World, a woman named Moiraine visits the village of Emond’s Field. She hides the fact that she can wield magic, because Emond’s Fielders are suspicious of outsiders. When evil forces attack the village, though, Moiraine has no choice but to reveal her magic as she tries to defend the villagers and herself.
Later, when people call for her to be evicted, Moiraine raises her voice so she can be heard over the crowd.
“To the south lies the river you call the White River, but far to the east of here men still call it by its rightful name. Manetherendrelle. In the Old Tongue, Waters of the Mountain Home. Sparkling waters that once coursed through a land of bravery and beauty. Two thousand years ago Manetherendrelle flowed by the walls of a mountain city so lovely to behold that Ogier stonemasons came to stare in wonder. Farms and villages covered this region and that you call the Forest of Shadows as well and beyond. But all of those folk thought of themselves as the people of the Mountain Home, the people of Manetheren.”
If we boil it down to its most basic facts, she’s telling us about a river and some mountains.
The context and her tone give her dialogue its importance, though. Not only has Moiraine given people time to settle down from yelling for her to get kicked out of town, she’s also given them a piece of their history, something most of them didn’t even know. By giving the people of Emond’s Field a visual picture of what their land used to look like, Moiraine bestows on the villagers a sense of pride about their home. Her speech also helps readers understand that this story really started a long time before the book, which makes it even richer.
2. Building characters
In the film Legally Blonde, Reese Witherspoon plays main character Elle Woods, a breezy blonde from California in her last year of college. When the movie starts, Elle is getting ready for the Big Date with her serious boyfriend, Warner Huntington III, who she thinks will propose that night. He dumps her instead.
Warner reminds Elle that he comes from a family of five generations of senators, and he’s headed to Harvard Law School.
“If I’m going to be a senator,” he says, “I need to marry a Jackie, not a Marilyn.”
In that line, we know how Warner sees Elle: as a distraction or an amusement.
Warner goes to Harvard, and Elle decides to win him back by going to Harvard Law School too. On the first day before their first class, she “accidentally” bumps into Warner who asks, “I’m sorry, are you here to see me?”
“No, silly,” Elle says, trying to be all cool and casual, “I go here.”
“You…got into Harvard Law?”
Elle replies, “What, like it’s hard?”
This line highlights Elle’s naivete and her sunny disposition as well as her deep-rooted belief that she can pull pretty much anything off.
3. Advancing the plot
The Lion the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis is one of the most beloved children’s books of all time. What starts as a trip of exploration by the four Pevensie siblings turns into a rescue as Edmund gets tricked and then captured by the evil White Witch.
The remaining Pevensies are traveling with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver to meet Aslan for help. They hear what they think is the sled of the White Witch and hide, all except for Mr. Beaver who sneaks out to investigate. Within minutes, everyone hears Mr. Beaver calling out to them.
“Come and see!” he says. “This is a nasty knock for the Witch! It looks as if her power is already crumbling.”
“What do you mean, Mr. Beaver?” Peter asks as he and the others come out of their hiding spot.
“Didn’t I tell you that she’d made it always winter and never Christmas? Didn’t I tell you? Well, just come and see?”
Mr. Beaver’s dialogue moves the story in a different direction. After a paragraph of description, C.S. Lewis tells us what’s happened. Santa, or Father Christmas as they call him in England, is sitting on his sleigh in front of them.
“I’ve come at last,” he says. “She has kept me out for a long time, but I have got in at last. Aslan is on the move. The Witch’s magic is weakening.”
The story has now shifted from scary to hopeful. Even though this is technically a children’s book and C.S. Lewis spends a little more time on narrating the story in straightforward terms, he still uses the dialogue in powerful ways to let the characters and the readers know what’s coming next. Being told by the omniscient narrator that the characters finally get to celebrate Christmas is one thing. Hearing the wonder and excitement in the characters’ voices as they talk about it heightens that excitement and hope.
4. Amplifying conflict
In Trust Me from author T.M. Logan, main character Ellen boards a commuter train after a difficult doctor’s appointment. She notices a young woman with a baby and strikes up a conversation with the mother. The woman introduces herself as Kathryn and the baby as Mia.
Kathryn receives a phone call that upsets her. As the train pulls to a stop, Kathryn asks Ellen if she’ll hold baby Mia for a few minutes. The next thing Ellen knows, she sees Kathryn get off the train and leave.
Ellen gets off the train with Mia in tow, but when she reaches the street she’s cornered by a man who kidnaps her and Mia. He holds her hostage for several hours. Finally, with some fast talking and some self-defense moves, Ellen manages, barely, to get out of there safely with the baby and to the police station.
She gives Mia to a child protective services agent and goes into another room with two officers thinking she’ll give her testimony about the bizarre incident and be on her way. Instead, the officers are looking at her sideways. In fact, one of them almost flat out accuses her of taking the baby and making up the story about the abductor.
“I don’t like the sound of what you’re saying,” Ellen says.
The cop describes how he thinks Ellen must have felt when she held Mia.
“The urge to have that baby,” he says. “To hold her, maybe even keep her. To be a better mother to her than anyone else could be.”
“That is an incredibly offensive suggestion, detective,” Ellen says. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I know what it’s like to want something you can’t have.”
Ellen looks at the cut of his nice clothes, the slightly arrogant manner with which he’s talking to her, and she says, “I seriously doubt that.”
Our stories thrive on conflict, and letting characters take verbal jabs at one another is much more interesting, and, really, efficient, than trying to describe the fact that two people disagree on something. Conflict, like fireworks, draw our attention to the story, and the more we can reinforce it with strong dialogue, the better our stories will be.
5. Building back story
In All the Ever Afters by Danielle Teller, we get the life story of Agnes, Cinderella’s stepmother. Agnes is part of a family hovering around the poverty line. When she’s a child, her parents let her go work at a local manor house. Later in the book, Agnes moves to a convent to complete her education.
Agnes has never been around boys much, so when Fernan, one of the church messengers, begins showering her with attention, she gets swept up into what she believes is the greatest romance of all time. She gets pregnant, and the convent is left to figure out what to do with her.
Fernan would just as soon forget that Agnes existed, but the Mother Abbess forces him to take responsibility for his actions.
“Mother Elfilda is displeased, as you might imagine,” Fernan says.
“I am aware,” Agnes says, “of Abbes Elfilda’s displeasure.”
“She has threatened to end her patronage of me if I do not take responsibility for the baby,” Fernan tells Agnes.
“You have to marry me?”
“I have to take you away from here,” Fernan replies.
“And leave me?”
“No. The last girl, Lizzie… They found her a husband. Mother Elfilda refuses to do it again.”
Danielle Teller doesn’t have to give us the entire history of all of Fernan’s romantic conquests. This information is much more devastating for Agnes and has a bigger dramatic impact when we hear it in a few words straight from Fernan himself. It tells her all she really needs to know about how Fernan lived his life before she came into the picture.
How do we do it?
How do we actually do what we’re talking about here? How do we accomplish writing dialogue that zips along and pulls our scenes together?
Let’s look at five questions to ask yourself and your story when you’re jumping into the revision phase, things to consider as you move from scene to scene.
1. Who’s talking?
Who’s in this scene? The character’s importance is going to determine what they talk about and also how much space and time on the page you give them. Don’t spend a lot of time trying to create dialogue for tertiary characters who show up once or twice. When you get to the secondary characters, pay attention to them. If it’s the primary characters, especially your protagonist and antagonist, stay on high alert for what you need to do to make their dialogue shine.
2. What’s the agenda?
What are you trying to accomplish with the dialogue? Why are these two characters talking about this topic at this time? What is the purpose of the conversation in this moment?
We talked earlier about the different functions that dialogue can have. It can provide back story or amplify your conflict. It can build the setting of your story or further your plot or reveal something about your character. When you look at your dialogue, ask whether it’s accomplishing one of these things or is advancing your story in some concrete way. If it’s not, then you need to fine-tune it or even consider getting rid of it completely.
3. Is this dialogue necessary?
Do these characters really need to have this discussion or confrontation or whisper these sweet nothings at this moment? How does this dialogue in this spot contribute to the overall story? How does it further the plot?
Here’s another way to look at it. Ask yourself, if I took this dialogue out of this spot right now, would it change the story in any way. Would it make my piece confusing to readers? Would they feel like they’re missing something?
If your answer is yes, then you definitely need to hold onto the dialogue. If the answer is no, you need to ask what the agenda is. Why did you want this conversation in this spot in the first place? Is this something that you could just as easily accomplish with narration?
4. Does your language sound relatable?
Our number one goal as writers is to give readers an experience that is so immersive that they can’t tell the difference between real life and the story we wrote. If anything trips them up in the reading process, it’ll break that spell. Readers will remember that they are, in fact, reading a piece of fiction or something that doesn’t relate to their real life. The minute that happens, we leave the door open just a crack for their own doubts and questions to come in.
This doesn’t mean that you have to make all your characters sound the same. The key is this: does your language sound relatable within the context of your story world? Do those unusual words or that different way of speaking fit the characters, the time period, and the plot you’ve laid out for readers to follow? Even if you’re writing an epic fantasy series, if your language fits your story world and characters and makes sense within those parameters, then it’s definitely relatable.
5. Does this dialogue even need to be in the story at all?
Sometimes we want our characters to talk to one another, but the things they discuss don’t really need to be in dialogue. Narrative or description can be a more efficient way to convey some concepts. We don’t need a character to go on and on. This is especially common in what writing experts call “As you know, Bob” conversations. It’s where characters are essentially giving us an info dump in dialogue form. We don’t need them to give us all of this information by talking to us or one another about it.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that you just go ahead and include that info dump in other places. There are better ways to include the information. An easy way to know what to include at any given time, in any given dialogue or narration, is to ask, “Do my readers absolutely need to know this information at this moment in this scene?” If the answer is no, don’t put the information there. Find another place to put it.
Tips for getting better at dialogue
Just like anything else in writing, one of the fastest ways to get better at writing dialogue is to keep doing it and practicing it. While it may seem frustrating when you’re working on your own story, here are some tips for things you can do to help train your writer’s ear and your actual ear for excellent dialogue.
1. Examine conversations in stories and books you love.
Go back to them and pick out a couple of longer conversations. Reread them and look at how they function in those stories and books in those moments. What is that dialogue accomplishing? What purpose does it serve in addition to being a conversation between two people? How does it take the story a step ahead? Remember, the best dialogue always does double duty. What other job is the dialogue performing here?
2. Listen to TV/movies with your eyes closed.
Pick a TV show or a movie that you’ve seen a couple of times. Now turn it on and close your eyes. Listen to how the characters are talking to one another. Where do they pause? Are they stressing specific words? What things are they leaving out? Based on what you hear, what do you think they mean when they don’t mention something important?
The more you can train your ear to listen for realistic dialogue, the easier it’ll be for you to write it.
3. Eavesdrop on other people.
It’s incredible the kinds of conversations people will have in public, especially when they’re so preoccupied with what they’re saying or who they’re talking to that they forget there are other people around. Don’t be intrusive or rude, but try to catch some of what another person is saying when they’re on the phone or talking to someone else. Listen to the exchanges, the way they address one another, and what happens if the conversation gets a little tense. Think about how to replicate the same things in your own work and how you might fit the conversation to a situation with your characters or how you might change things to take the story in another direction.
4. Think about your own conversations.
Think about how you spoke to your significant other or child about something strange or funny or sad. Try to write it out. When you’re in the moment, consider what you’re saying with your words and with what you’re not answering.
Dialogue has the luxury of being as short as you want it to be; we can use sentence fragments. We can intentionally misdirect the reader by misdirecting other characters. It also gets grace in that it doesn’t always have to hit on what a character wants to know or needs to understand in order to move forward in the story. In fact, sometimes and in some genres, misdirection is exactly what you need.
5. Act out your dialogue.
Pick a scene and give the dialogue the kinds of inflections and emphasis you want or that you hear in your head when you wrote it. See how it sounds to your ear. A lot of times dialogue on the page will land differently than when it’s spoken aloud.
This doesn’t mean you replicate dialogue word for word. We don’t need all the boring bits that we all tend to talk about. When we go to our dialogue and ask, “What’s the agenda here?” automatically our dialogue will have a sense of purpose. When it gets that sense of purpose, then all of these other things will start to fall in line.
As you can see, dialogue isn’t just people talking. It’s a tool in your writing that you use to make your story better and bring your readers closer. With a little practice and time and attention, your characters will start talking about all the important things, every single time, no matter how big or small the topic, and your writing will be that much stronger.